It is depressing to see Len McCluskey regurgitating the false notion that free movement across Europe has ushered in a regime of cheap labour and the undercutting of wages (Backlash as union chief calls for Labour to curb free movement, 14 November).
This is factually incorrect as consistently demonstrated by researchers such as Jonathan Portes, and deeply insulting to all those European workers who have been contributing massively to our society – doctors, nurses, teachers, university researchers, social care staff, drivers, workers in the food, hospitality and building industries – people who have been paying more in taxes than they receive in benefits, hence contributing to the economy and in fact creating jobs and growth.
I cannot believe that all the staff at McCluskey’s disposal have not informed him of the objective facts about the impact of free movement. Hence his intervention is a wilful distortion of the situation, pandering to anti-immigrant ideology going back generations. The Labour party’s manifesto team must honour the excellent conference motion on free movement and not give in to McCluskey’s retrogade, populist rhetoric.
Emeritus reader in sociology, University of Liverpool
• Any Labour supporter drawing too simple a pragmatic message from Len McCluskey’s remarks on immigration policy, conceding ground to working-class “commonsense concerns” over migrants, should reflect on the recent experience of other European social-democratic parties following this path.
Denmark’s Social Democrats’ move to rightwing anti-immigration policies helped them win the 2019 parliamentary elections, but at the expense of cementing Islamophobia firmly at the heart of Danish politics, thereby assisting the rise of two new far-right national parties, boding ill for the future. Elsewhere, electoral failure has ensued instead.
Slovakia’s social-democratic prime minister, Robert Fico, campaigned in 2016 using anti-migrant language, promising to “never allow a single Muslim immigrant under a quota system”. His party lost its majority and 40% of its parliamentary seats, while neo-Nazis gained 10% of the seats. The Czech Republic’s left-of-centre president, Milos Zeman, adopted anti-immigrant policies in national elections in 2017 – the result was a dramatic surge in favour of populist anti-migrant parties and the ruling social democrats fell to 7% of the vote. Echoing anti-immigrant sentiment legitimises and emboldens populist rightwing politics.
• Len McCluskey’s dispiriting intervention on Wednesday was a blast from a politically alien, but not-so-distant past. It was the “Controls on immigration” mug all over again. Policy should be adopted because it is morally and ethically right – and argued for on that basis. It was this impulse that lay behind the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader in the first place. Because Labour’s current strategy means enthusing its base as much as its potential voters, policies must be optimistic, radical and progressive.
And, as it turns out, freedom of movement is overwhelmingly popular with the general public. A recent poll showed 67% in favour of complete freedom of movement for EU and UK nationals to live and work in each others’ countries.
McCluskey’s resurrection of the “traditional/white working class” – a racist dogwhistle if ever there was one – is poisonous. It is a concept that must be cast into Labour’s dustbin for ever, alongside the Ed stone and that “Controls on immigration” mug. The working class includes everyone who works for a living, whether they are born here or not.
Everyone deserves protections at work, decent pay, decent hours and a say in their future. Employment rights and collective bargaining can and must be extended. Bosses and capitalists who ruthlessly exploit their workforces must be unceremoniously punished. But make no mistake: denying freedom of movement for workers, and allowing bosses to threaten them with deportation if they do not conform, will undermine this task completely.
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